'Tea leaves': This bellwether special election could preview Democrats' midterm prospects
When Republican Glenn Youngkin pulled off a narrow victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 2021, countless pundits described it as a very bad omen for Democrats — as Virginia was a state where the Democratic Party had been making considerable gains. And Democratic anxiety continued in 2022 when poll after poll showed President Joe Biden with low approval ratings, fueling fears that the 2022 midterms will bring a massive red wave like the red waves of 1994 and 2010. But with the U.S. Supreme Court having overturned Roe v. Wade with its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many pundits who were predicting doom for Democrats in November are now wondering if the midterms outlook for Democrats is improving.
There are some hopeful signs for Democrats. In Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race, for example, some polls are showing Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, with double-digit leads over Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Donald Trump-backed Republican nominee. Polls are also showing Democratic candidates to be quite competitive in the U.S. Senate races in Ohio, Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. And the Dobbs ruling infuriated millions of abortion rights supporters, giving Democrats in swing states and swing districts something to campaign on aggressively.
In an article published by Politico on August 19, journalists Ally Mutnick and Sarah Ferris describe a special U.S. House election in Upstate New York’s Hudson Valley as a bellwether that could give Democrats some idea on what awaits them in November. The main candidates in that race are Democrat Pat Ryan and Republican Marc Molinaro, who are competing in New York’s 19th Congressional District — which Biden carried by single digits in 2020.
“A special election here next week could offer Democrats a preview of the pain coming their way in November,” Mutnick and Ferris explain. “Or it could provide powerful evidence that a Republican wave election is not in the offing. Both parties are dumping money into this Hudson Valley district to notch a short-lived but symbolic victory in the last competitive race before the midterms. The winner will succeed Democrat Antonio Delgado for just a few months. But the messaging, turnout and margin of the contest will offer tea leaves into what lies ahead this fall in the battle for control of the House.”
The Politico reporters continue, “For Democrats, a win would offer proof that the party can translate their recent legislative victories and voter anger over the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling into tangible gains. After nonstop attention on their stalled policy agenda, internecine bickering and dire polling, Democrats are desperate to tell a different story.”
The special election in that congressional race will be held this Tuesday, August 23. The Times Herald-Record’s Chris McKenna notes that Ryan is actually competing in two congressional races at once: the special election where he is up against Molinaro, and a Democratic congressional primary where he is competing with fellow Democrats Aisha Mills and Moses Mugulusi — and the winner of that primary will take on Republican Colin Schmitt in the general election, which won’t be decided until November. If Ryan manages to win both the Democratic primary and the special election on August 23, he will be going into the general election looking like a very competitive candidate.
Although Democrats enjoyed a major blue wave when they retook the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, their majority shrunk in 2020 —and Republicans don’t need to flip a lot of Democrat-held seats in 2022 to obtain a majority. The Democrat-held seat in New York’s 19th Congressional District is one that Republicans are hoping to flip.
Ryan told Politico, “A win here would validate that the ground is shifting. Democrats are really good at being hard on ourselves, and we’ve been doing an awful lot of that. And sometimes, you need to zoom out. It will, maybe not reset, but I think certainly fundamentally reshape the trajectory.”
If Republicans are able to flip that Hudson Valley seat, Mutnick and Ferris note, it “would calm fears that the party peaked three months too early.
“Despite some evidence of an awakened Democratic base,” the Politico journalists observe, “operatives remain convinced that few down-ballot candidates can outrun President Joe Biden’s unpopularity — especially in this sprawling district, which unites the liberal towns north of New York City with struggling farm communities a hundred miles away.”
Ryan has been hitting Molinaro hard on the abortion question, while Molinaro has been trying to dodge that issue to focus on inflation and crime.
“In many ways, Ryan is piloting an early test whether or not access to abortion can sway competitive congressional races,” according to Mutnick and Ferris. “When the Dobbs ruling was issued, he quickly used his paid advertising on TV and in the mail to stress his commitment to abortion access. It wasn’t even a discussion whether to do so, Ryan said in an interview.”
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